Whither Progress?

My fav neo-lib shill, S Pinker, retweeted one of his fellow enlightenment bros today:


(Disclosure: I do like Roser’s Our World in Data. It’s definitely interesting and sometimes useful, even if it doesn’t necessarily have the answers that many of its proponents believe it does.)

Here, we see progress framed as reducing human suffering. Looking at the comment thread (very much an elitist bubble, except for the ubiquitous guy-linking-Pinker-to-Epstein), there’s a lot of the usual bullshit, smugly attributing anti-progress sentiment to cognitive biases, political agendas, etc., but I find it surprising that none of the few critics here are peeling back the successes of progress, which is not especially difficult to do; every global problem where progress has emerged victorious invariably has its origins in progress itself. Poverty/inequality, epidemics, etc. all point back to sedentism/agriculture, arguably the foundations of human progress. The arguments in favor of these tend to revolve around human safety and food security, both of which are themselves easily debatable. When you tear those down, the arguments usually return to the life expectancy metric. Because babies are dying less and because we are on the whole living longer lives, surely that must mean we have made objective progress? Personally, I would not accept longer life as objectively better, either at the individual or collective level.

I think I’d be willing to concede that (and this is based on our largely hypothetical and anecdotal understanding of our own prehistory), we have made intellectual progress; maybe the human mind today (independent of changes in actual brain physiology) is capable of accommodating much bigger and more varied ideas than ever before? Whether this is objectively a good thing, I’m not sure. It definitely has made the human experience… interesting. Then again, perhaps the enlightenment bros’ crusade against magic and mythology is destroying certain forms of imagination, and maybe not so interesting after all?

When the progressist (and this is me sometimes when it suits me to shill for progress) reaches this point in the debate, he often throws down his trump card, saying, “well, would you rather huddle in a cold, dark cave, without all the wonderful doodads that progress has given us?” For anyone living comfortably (even one living in poverty) in a modern liberal democracy, the honest answer to this should generally be, “well, no, I don’t want to live in that cave! It would be damn uncomfortable!” But that’s just because we’re comfortable with the devil we know. The story we have of human life in prehistory certainly sounds like a hard one to be living, and it certainly would be unpleasant to suddenly be transplanted into that life. That’s not the same as if we were born into that life to begin with and to compare the two objectively. Regardless, the progressist will claim victory here, even though it really is a hollow one. (And he may realize it when he goes to his comfortable home with all the doodads progress has given us, gets bored, lonely, angry, and goes on social media to argue with anti-progressists.) Also, I’m not suggesting “happiness” is a better metric for what is “good”, as many anti-progressists are prone to do.

There is nothing axiomatic about “better” anyway. Humans, like other animals, need to entertain ourselves, and because we have such highly-developed brains, we do a lot of that entertaining inside our heads. Part of that is creating narratives to continually drive our actions. Progress is just another idea we’ve created to entertain ourselves with.

John Gray said in a recent article on Unherd:

The classical liberal economist F.A. Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty (1960): “Progress is movement for movement’s sake, for it is in the process of learning, and in the effects of having learned something new, that man enjoys the gift of his intelligence.” But what is it that is learnt in the course of this purposeless process? Admirable for the clarity and honesty with which it is stated, Hayek’s idea of progress is as much an expression of nihilism as Derrida’s project of deconstruction.

I’m really not about guilting us into collectively throwing up our hands and “giving it all up”; for what then? I certainly wouldn’t know. I’m just recognizing reminding myself that we build intellectual projects to amuse ourselves. These projects are not themselves fundamental truths, nor are they derived from any fundamental truths other than our fundamental needs as meaning-seeking/making machines.

Our Comforting Beliefs

I’m really tired of hearing and reading this anti-fear-mongering nonsense from economic and tech pundits, who keep repeating that the current tech revolution (lead by AI) is the same as the industrial revolution, and will lead to new types of employment in the long term, which will compensate for the short term loss of employment across so many sectors.

Uneducated people are supposedly more fearful of an uncertain future, presumably because they don’t have the tools or the knowledge to recognize the patterns from history and make good predictions based on those. I’d argue that it’s the educated people who are complacent, comforted by this ignorant belief that history must have answers for us, so there’s no need to be pessimistic about the future.

Human history as a whole has no parallel that we know of, so we have nothing to compare it to except itself, and that history (our understanding of it) is still too small for us to make any deeply and enduringly meaningful predictions based on what we have learned (or think we have learned) from it. There is no universal law that says the human race must continue to exist. (That doesn’t mean it won’t continue. It just means we shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re safe from extinction.)

Similarly, there’s no reason to believe that, “oh, there will always be some kind of work for people to do. Everything is gonna be okay.” Historian Yuval Noah Harari has captured so perfectly so much of my recent thoughts on these comforting beliefs in this piece:


If you don’t feel like reading and prefer to listen, this TED interview (60 minutes) is also fascinating, if you have the time to listen. Well worth it.